Episode 75: I Don’t Pay for Podcasts. Why Would I Pay for Yours?

Episode 75: I Don’t Pay for Podcasts. Why Would I Pay for Yours?

Introduction:

This week, Karen Clark Cole, Paul Downs, and William Vanderbloemen start with a discussion of how 21 Hats might finally take the plunge into monetization. We also discuss Karen’s decision to disappoint her salespeople by forgoing a chunk of low-hanging revenue, William’s grand experiment in unplugging for seven weeks this summer, and Paul’s need to balance his ownership responsibilities with his personal responsibilities. Plus, we consider the impact of The Great Resignation, and we look for lessons to take from last week’s discussion about mental health.

— Loren Feldman

Guests:

Karen Clark Cole is co-founder and CEO of Blink.

William Vanderbloemen is founder and CEO of Vanderbloemen Search Group.

Paul Downs is CEO of Paul Downs Cabinetmakers.

Producer:

Jess Thoubboron is founder of Blank Word Productions.

Full Episode Transcript:

Loren Feldman:
Welcome back Karen, Paul, and William. It’s great to have you all here. This week, I want to do something just a little bit different and start with, well, me.

I’m, as you know, very fortunate to have these weekly conversations with actual, real life, experienced, successful entrepreneurs like you guys, and I kind of feel as though I might as well take advantage of that and get a little free advice. So if there are no objections, I would like to give you a quick update on where I stand with 21 Hats and see if you have any reactions, any suggestions for me.

The quick update is that—well, the good news is I’m getting a lot of positive feedback from exactly the type of people who I was hoping to get it from. The bad news is, I’m not a whole lot closer to figuring out how to monetize this and turn it into a real business. I have made a little bit of headway with some sponsors. I’ve got a couple of small deals going, both with the podcast and with the Morning Report. But my real inclination has never been to focus on finding sponsors. I feel like I’ve worked at a bunch of big media companies that learned how difficult that can be. And I would rather charge subscribers who get real value—subscribers and listeners—if in fact they do get real value from this.

And obviously, that means I have to figure out what’s a reasonable price to charge for that. So I thought what I’d do is give you a quick reminder of what my value proposition is. It’s this podcast. Obviously, you guys are familiar with that. It’s the daily email newsletter, the Morning Report. And on top of that, I also do a couple of webinars a month, where I bring in people for one-off conversations: somebody in the news, somebody with an interesting idea. But on top of that, what I’m really hoping to build is a sense of community, that the 21 Hats brand stands for something. So, there’s my update.

Karen Clark Cole:
Loren, I don’t want to pay for that! I don’t pay for any podcasts. Why would I pay for yours? Why not have the sponsors pay?

Loren Feldman:
Because that does take you down a tricky path. And like I said, I’ve worked with companies that have certainly gone down that path. And the danger is: You end up chasing clicks. You end up chasing traffic to satisfy sponsors, because they’re the ones footing the bill. And there is often a divergence between the needs of the sponsors and the needs of your listeners, your readers.

Karen Clark Cole:
Well, I think you should do what—guess what I’m going to say!—you should do some user research and find out what your listeners want. I listen to so many great podcasts that I wouldn’t even dream of paying for it, because you just don’t do that.

Paul Downs:
I disagree. There are plenty of podcasters who support themselves with subscriptions. Sam Harris comes to mind, and I pay Stitcher so that I don’t have to listen to ads. So I’m paying something for podcasts so that I have the experience that I like.

Karen Clark Cole:
But you can decide that, right Paul? You can say, “I’m going to subscribe so I don’t get ads or I can keep the ads and have it free.”

Paul Downs:
Yeah, although they sneak in ads anyway, in a lot of these things. So you end up skipping, but I would say asking your audience for direct support is not doomed. Other people do it, and it succeeds. So I don’t know what the answer is. I do think that Karen’s probably right that asking in some way that gives you a reasonably large sample of your people is the first thing. Have you done that?

Loren Feldman:
No. I haven’t. I have done it anecdotally, but I have not done real research.

Paul Downs:
Okay, why not?

Karen Clark Cole:
That’s my question.

Loren Feldman:
Because I’m afraid I might get an answer I don’t want to hear.

Karen Clark Cole:
Oh boy, that’ll kill you.

Paul Downs:
Well, I sympathize, because we don’t make any real effort to go back to our clients after a couple of years and see how happy they are. Because it is scary. It’s like, probably, the single scariest thing that I confront, and it’s defeated me every time. So I sympathize with you on that one.

Loren Feldman:
I appreciate that.

Karen Clark Cole:
If I was Jay, I’d tell you to get over it. The best way to improve and to have a successful business is to gather feedback all day long, from your employees, from your customers. It’s how you improve.

Loren Feldman:
That makes sense. I can’t argue with that. I’ve been through a few evolutions of thinking, and that’s part of the reason I haven’t done the research—not that that’s an excuse. The research would have been helpful at any point, and perhaps that should be my next step. I do have to try something, and there is one low-risk strategy that I am thinking of trying. And I think this is a more serious answer to your question, Karen. It’s one thing what you get back in research and it’s another thing when you actually ask people to pull out a credit card.

And I think what I’m leaning toward at the moment is using the email newsletter as the vehicle. It’s very easy for me to add a subscription fee to that. And I would pitch it in the email newsletter as a subscription fee to all things 21 Hats. But what I’m thinking about is not putting up a paywall, making it voluntary—at least initially. Saying, essentially, to my customers, “If you’re getting value out of this, please pay for it. I want to keep it available to as many people as possible. If you can’t pay me, if you’re not getting value, I understand. But I need to make a living doing this. So I’m asking you to pay,” and have that cover the podcast, the webinars, and the newsletter, and see what happens.

Karen Clark Cole:
So you’re gonna guilt them into it.

Paul Downs:
That’s such a harsh way to put it.

William Vanderbloemen:
I was gonna put it exactly that way. It sounds like a church to me, Loren…

Loren Feldman:
Or NPR.

Karen Clark Cole:
Yeah, I can’t stand it when they do that.

William Vanderbloemen:
Maybe the best yoga studio in Houston does just that, “Oh, just leave a donation if you’d like to pay for your class.” And I don’t know what their P&L looks like, but I would walk away feeling bad about even going there. “Did I give? Should I have given? Did I give enough or not give enough? Are people getting paid?” And it just feels like a charity. And I don’t think you should be that bashful about it. I think you should decide where you’re going to charge—and charge. Frankly, I’d go the advertiser route. I don’t pay to listen to any podcast and probably wouldn’t.

Karen Clark Cole:
Two to one. We’ve got two to one!

Loren Feldman:
This is not a democracy, you know.

Paul Downs:
So, straight talk here. You’re right, you’ve been operating in a particular business model, which as far as I can tell, relies on growth by percentages. And so it’s going to take a while to get to a substantial audience. You can do whatever business model you feel like as a boss for as long as you have money. So if someone was asking me how I was doing, in the spirit of honesty, I would have to take into account what my runway looks like.

How long can you continue to do what you’re doing today without changes? And what’s going to happen if you don’t do anything? And that’s a big part of it—that if you, for some reason, could just wait around until lightning strikes, then that’s going to inform your answer of what to do next. And if you can’t—you have to make a change—that’s also going to inform your answer. So I think that you would probably want us to talk about these things this way. Again, in the spirit of honesty, as a boss to boss, are you willing to answer that question?

Karen Clark Cole:
But you’re suggesting, though, Paul, that he self-fund it. And I don’t think, even if he had all the money in the world, he should. You should come up with a business model that’s sustainable.

Paul Downs:
Right, right. But what do you have to do and what do you want to do are two relevant points in any conversation like this.

Loren Feldman:
Well, first of all, I’m happy to answer those questions. You’re right, I ask you guys those kinds of questions all the time, and I hardly feel as though I can run away from them. So I have kind of been hoping for lightning to strike thus far. I’ve probably got a few months of runway left. But I can’t keep doing this indefinitely.

Karen Clark Cole:
So Loren, I would encourage you to look at your limiting belief, which is that all advertising is bad and that all advertisers expect you to get clicks where you don’t want them. What if they have the same mission as you?

Loren Feldman:
Let me stop you. That puts it a little more harshly than I would put it. I don’t want to be totally dependent on that kind of revenue if I can avoid it. If that’s the only choice, I’m willing to give it a shot and stick to my guns and do this the way I think it should be done as long as I can. But The New York Times, for example, where I used to work, has been tremendously successful shifting their business model to being dependent on subscription money, as opposed to advertising money—but they still take advertising money. That’s what I would hope to do here.

William Vanderbloemen:
And I quit reading them the minute they did that.

Karen Clark Cole:
Yeah, I’m the same way. I’m with William.

William Vanderbloemen:
There’s five thousand other newspapers. I don’t need The Times.

Loren Feldman:
You’re obviously not alone in that, but it’s been tremendously successful for them. It has worked. They brought in dramatically more revenue doing that than they expected—despite losing the two of you.

Paul Downs:
And what newspapers have successfully deployed a different model?

Loren Feldman:
Um, you know, more and more have gone that way.

Paul Downs:
Yeah, exactly.

Karen Clark Cole:
But I would encourage you to not compare yourself to The New York Times and compare yourself to a podcast.

Loren Feldman:
Why not, Karen?

Karen Clark Cole:
I mean, come off it. The main value, I think, is the podcast, and then you explained you’ve got your daily newsletter, but…

Loren Feldman:
You know, I’m not sure you’re right about that. I don’t think that’s the case for everybody. There are people who pick one or the other. And I have a lot more subscribers to the newsletter than I do to the podcast.

Karen Clark Cole:
Either way, all I’m suggesting is that you’re not a newspaper.

William Vanderbloemen:
I wonder if you could test, Loren, to see, as has been mentioned, what value are people getting from each thing? And where could you create premium value? Like, okay, “We’re gonna sell a membership and with that comes a coaching call with X, Y, and Z, or a cohort or an experience or something other than just pure content.” Because I think content has just gotten cheaper and cheaper and cheaper and charging for it is getting harder and harder and harder.

Loren Feldman:
I think that’s a good point. I do anticipate figuring out some kind of premium offering, especially around events or office hour phone calls or mastermind phone calls, Zoom calls, but I’m not able to offer that right now. And I need something to get me there.

Karen Clark Cole:
What if you got one sponsor to cover all that?

Loren Feldman:
Well, that would be okay, too. I’ve got 5,000-plus subscribers to the newsletter. It’s a little early for me to go out there and really try to sell that to big-time advertisers. I have people coming to me, and I’m starting small. And I’m hoping to build that while I focus on creating as much good content as I can. All right, truly enough about me. Karen, we haven’t heard from you in a while. What’s going on?

Karen Clark Cole:
What’s going on? Continuing to grow and working hard at connecting targets to actuals, which is something that we never used to be as focused on.

Loren Feldman:
I’m not sure what that means, “connecting targets to actuals?”

Karen Clark Cole:
It used to be, “Okay, we have a target.” It’s kind of, lick your finger and put it up in the wind and decide how much you should plan to grow this year—and then see if you do it. There’s no real strategy connecting the two. And so now as we’re bigger, we watch it carefully. We make sure we’re constantly adjusting the dials every day to make sure that we can hit those targets, because we have to do all kinds of budgets and hiring to support those targets. So if we don’t hit it, it has a much bigger impact for us now than it would have when we were smaller.

So all of that to say, though, is that some interesting side effects have come out of it that I wouldn’t have expected. It’s kind of all good. It’s a good problem to have, but our clients are asking for services that are kind of on the periphery of what we would normally do. So normally we do project-based consulting work. So we design digital products, and that is on a project-by-project basis. So we go in, we do the work, and then we get out. That’s been our model for two decades. But now our clients are asking us to do research, which is more of a… it’s really what we would consider data collection. Our clients now want us to collect data to make sure that the product that we’re working on can work in different lighting conditions, can work in different heating conditions, all things that are important for the success of this product. But it’s not research in our typical way that we’ve normally done it.

Loren Feldman:
Karen, I think you said it was a “nice problem to have.” What’s the problem?

Karen Clark Cole:
The problem is we have to turn away—I’m about to make a decision to turn away work, because it’s not in our sweet spot. So a lot of people are making a case that we should take on this different kind of research, because they want the revenue. It’s not nearly as profitable work, and so it’s a different gross margin, but it still at the end of the day can contribute to the bottom line in a positive way, and it contributes to the top line in a big way. Yet I want to grow the company in our core, not in the periphery—and there are a couple other examples like that. And so I’m about to have to tell the salespeople, “You can’t take that work anymore. It’s okay that it’s $3 million. We’re not going to take it.” And there are a lot of people who are very upset about that, including on the finance team.

Paul Downs:
So it sounds like the question is: Do you deploy the thing you’re really good at and find new customers? Or do you add services to your existing customers? Is that basically what’s going on?

Karen Clark Cole:
Yeah, it’s not even a decision like that. When I look at it, I say to the sales team, “I want you guys to focus your effort over here on our core work.” Because it still takes energy for them to land this other work. And they haven’t been given clear guidance as to whether they should or shouldn’t. The clients are asking for it, and they’re like, “Why not?” And so I’m like, “Well, here’s, why not.” But it’s taken a long time to get back to turning that into a decision that I’m going to make. Because there’s so many, so many days and people inbetween when it started and where we’re at now. And it’s just kind of gotten out of hand. We did one and now the clients want more and more and more.

Loren Feldman:
It sounds like you’ve got your mind pretty made up on it. Was it a tough decision for you to reach?

Karen Clark Cole:
It’s been a lot of conversations, a lot of talking to different people to find out, making sure that I really understand it. It’s taken a while. And I’ll tell you, it would have been way faster if we were all just in the office, and I could have talked to 10 people in one hallway walk. But because we’re all remote still, it takes… I’ve got to set up a Zoom call with these three people, then that one person, and then these five people, and it’s just taking months instead of what would have been days or weeks.

Loren Feldman:
Is the issue how people are compensated? Is it because salespeople are going to lose opportunities for—

Karen Clark Cole:
No, they’re not on commission. It’s just going to be a little harder for them because this stuff’s in their lap. And they have to say no to it, and they don’t like to say no to revenue. They do have quotas.

Loren Feldman:
William, how are you doing?

William Vanderbloemen:
I’m doing good, man. I just came out of a summer where we made a pretty large experiment with our company, which is self-serving, but an experiment nonetheless. And the experiment is: How necessary is William to the company? I’ve tried to talk to all of our clients about how succession is a huge issue, and a particularly huge issue right now and for the next 10 to 15 years as the Boomers round out their time in the workforce. And so one option for our own company and my succession is that I make myself less and less necessary to the growth and running of the company. And so this summer, we’ve more than doubled my normal time away. We went through about seven weeks—consecutive weeks—of me being gone, totally unplugged.

I did do regular check-in calls with my COO, but they were 15-20 minutes and once or maybe twice a week. I dropped into one staff meeting via Zoom, but didn’t lead it. And things went really well, and we didn’t take a hit in momentum. The summer is typically very slow for us. Whether it’s non-profits or schools or churches, everybody sort of takes the summer off and then kicks back up in the fall. July was predictably slow. August is not over, as we tape this, but it should shape up to be one of our very busiest months ever of any month.

So that was all good, and it then creates a whole new set of options and questions for me. I guess I could go play more and more golf and just take passive income and let the company run, and it wouldn’t be the old founder around meddling in things. Maybe I don’t want to put that to a vote. But the other option that’s far more interesting to me and fun, is it’s almost like—and I don’t know if Karen or Paul can relate to this—but I think I’ve launched at least three or four companies under the umbrella of this company. You go through an iteration, and it’s like, and now we’re a new kind of company that we are, kind of like Karen was saying, stronger as we get bigger. And I’m more excited about launching another version of the company where my COO is very competent at running the day-to-day. I’m no longer needed in any searches or client-facing things.

Loren Feldman:
Is that true, William? Do you think you could have taken a seven-week break during your busy season instead of during your slow season?

William Vanderbloemen:
That’s a great question. That’s a great question. And by the way, it was also during a season where we experienced our own turnover. You know, I’ve been calling this The Great Resignation since all the way back in November, and everyone’s dealing with it. It’s the hot topic, and I probably should have gotten better PR to make sure people knew I said it. But you know, I would say this is a pretty good litmus test.

One of the people who left and they left—and they left quite a while ago—was our VP of marketing, who’s been with me forever and is wonderful. We’re almost to the point of replacing her, and as I’m interviewing candidates, I’m like, “You know, for good or bad, if you come here, you’re saddled with me, because I don’t need to be client-facing anymore. I don’t need to be running the operations anymore. You can just leverage me as content producer, speaker, ambassador, whatever you want to do, to push the brand forward.” That’s the kind of work that gives me energy, so I’m excited to see if that’s where we can head—

Loren Feldman:
You didn’t answer my question, though.

William Vanderbloemen:
I said, that’s a good question.

Loren Feldman:
Yes. [Laughter]

William Vanderbloemen:
So I don’t know the answer to that, Loren. But I know that you’ve got to start somewhere, and you stretch it out a little bit more each summer and—

Loren Feldman:
Fair.

William Vanderbloemen:
I don’t really want to, as you know, as a guy who was in the Small Giants community, I’m not interested in just growing at lightning speed for the sake of growth. But I’m also not interested in just being custodial about the next 10-15 years of my work here. So it was a good litmus test, and I’m excited about what it means for the possibility of how I can spend my time here going forward.

Karen Clark Cole:
I always think about how the company runs itself, at this point. I can go on vacation. I remember when I took that three-month sabbatical, and everything will carry on great without me, in fact. But what doesn’t happen is the growth. And so my job is to be looking at what’s coming next, and then get us there. And so if we just want to maintain and sustain what we’ve got, the engine is working, and I think you’re seeing that. That’s a great sign. If the company can run without you, that’s a testament to your leadership and your ability to see that. There are lots of smart people around. But the question is, will it get to the next level?

Laura, on one of her podcast [episodes], Jay and Dana, were talking about [how] she wanted to hire a big thinker, and it’s like, well, you’re the big thinker. The founder of a company is usually the biggest thinker because they dreamed up this thing in the first place. And so, if your job is just to think about what’s next and then have others execute it, that all of a sudden becomes—it doesn’t even feel like work, in my mind. It’s super fun.

William Vanderbloemen:
Yeah, yeah.

Loren Feldman:
Well, we’ll be eager to hear more as you proceed with that, William. Quick question for you: you did predict this year of turnover. Where do you think we are now? What are you thinking is the environment going forward?

William Vanderbloemen:
I’m thinking every time I’ve tried to foretell what’s going to happen with the pandemic, I’m wrong. I don’t know where the Delta variant and people putting off go-back-to-work mode and all that, I don’t know how that interplays. But with that caveat, I’d say we’re not quite halfway through this great resignation.

Loren Feldman:
More to come.

Paul Downs:
What is what comes next, the great settling down? Nobody quits?

William Vanderbloemen:
No, I think there’s just more and more churn, more and more people saying, “I can go do whatever I want. I can work from wherever I want.” This is probably an entirely separate podcast [episode], but the shift—this is gonna sound critical or derogatory, I don’t mean for it to, entirely—but the shift to employee entitlement is everywhere. From NFL quarterbacks saying, “Actually I want to get traded, and I want to go play at team X.” Well, that was never heard of before, right? That’s a whole new thing, and it’s not just in the NFL.

It’s a cohort I’m in of CEOs. One guy was saying to me—he had a guy Zoom in, they’ve been remote work for a while—he Zoomed in, and he’s like, “Oh, that’s a new background.” He said, “Oh yeah, I moved to Colorado Springs.” Like, what? “Yeah, I decided I’m gonna work from here from now on.” Not checking in with the boss, and I hear story after story after story of that. So it’s not just everybody left their job and started something new and that’s that. I think it’s going to be a very unsettled—call it 12 more months, maybe even through the end of next calendar year—before things have calmed down a little bit.

Karen Clark Cole:
The grand reshuffling, right? Everyone’s just moving around, you know, unsettled, and they’ll land somewhere. It’ll be totally different. I think it’s exciting, honestly.

William Vanderbloemen:
Well, I got to the office this morning, and this week’s Bloomberg—yes, I still take printed magazines—was sitting on my desk, and it’s got a picture of a bunch of Millennials on Wall Street standing there, staring at the camera. It says, “$120,000 to start? We’ll think about it.” I don’t think it’s going anywhere for a while, Loren. And so it’s got a lot of people that I know looking to us, saying, “How’d you do retention bonuses? What can you do to incentivize retention?” Retention, I think, was already gonna be a big part of the ball game—given the way the Millennial generation does like to jump from job to job—but now it’s even more important.

Karen Clark Cole:
And William, are you seeing, is being hybrid or remote a requirement now?

William Vanderbloemen:
I don’t know the answer to that. I think it depends entirely on the kind of work you’re doing.

Karen Clark Cole:
But in your world, you haven’t seen that?

William Vanderbloemen:
At my company? Or in my world?

Karen Clark Cole:
When you’re placing people.

William Vanderbloemen:
Well, churches have never been huge proponents of big office hours. It’s like, “No, you need to be out in the community. We need to come back together to meet,” but they probably always functioned like hybrids. Schools, on the other hand, hybrid is, “No, you may not do that.” Out of all the different things that we all argued about with each other over the last year, I think the one universal opinion I’ve heard from people on every side of the spectrum is, “Virtual elementary education does not work.” So our educational institutions and our schools are saying, “You’ve got to be on campus. We’ve got to have on-campus learning.”

The type of work, I think, will be the contingency around: How much hybrid, and how much remote? We have somewhat of a hybrid, but we always have. We have a terrible commute in Houston, so you can pick which eight hours you want to be here. And they revolve around as early as, start at six in the morning and start as late as 10 in the morning. But it protects a core of the day from 10 to two where everybody’s here.

Karen Clark Cole:
Well, but hybrid means they can work at home for part of the time, right?

William Vanderbloemen:
Yeah, I’m aware of that. I don’t know. We haven’t seen that here yet.

Paul Downs:
It’s hard to run a factory hybrid.

Loren Feldman:
Have you tried, Paul?

Paul Downs:
Um, yeah, it’s called doing nothing. But even my workforce that can take days off or work from home on days tend to come in because there’s so much more value to being able to have a quick conversation with the rest of the team. I cannot see that happening virtually. Companies make it work, but I can’t see how it would work for us.

Loren Feldman:
What is going on in your world, Paul? How are you doing?

Paul Downs:
Well, the company is doing quite well. We have had some challenges just with people being out of shop for various reasons—some health reasons, some vacations, what have you. And that really does affect our production, but we’ve gotten past that. My biggest thing right now is that I’m dealing with a number of personal issues that cause me to not want to throw myself into work. One is, my father is in poor health, and then for my autistic son, the person who normally takes care of him is going to be out for 10 weeks. So Nancy and I are poised to zig this way or that way in response to trouble.

I’m very happy that my company mostly runs itself, certainly hour by hour. And I’m still doing things like managing the payroll, but I don’t have to work all that hard right now. I’m just riding that. I don’t have any huge plans to become world dominating in my industry, because I don’t think that there’s anything we could do to really change the basic trajectory of how we’re growing. We’ve tried all of it, but it really comes down to the people who buy my product are tending to go away from the old channels and go towards Google, and that’s where we are. And so we’re experiencing basically 10 percent growth every year by doing what we’re doing now. So I’m just in a different place than William and Karen, and happy to be there at the moment.

Loren Feldman:
Although, it sounds a little bit similar to William in that, for unfortunate reasons, you may have something of a break from the office, too, and something of a litmus test as to how your business runs without you.

Paul Downs:
Yeah, but even if things get hairy on the personal side, it’s not like I’m going to be unable to come into work, or to work pretty much as I do now. I consider going to the shop just to be part of my basic day, and I don’t necessarily when I get here have to do all that much. A lot of times I sit around and just wait for someone to walk in with a problem and then spend 15 minutes solving it and then wait another four hours or six hours or two days. And that’s value to the company, but I don’t have any immediate things to do on a lot of days, and I’m perfectly happy with that.

Loren Feldman:
We’re running short on time. There’s one particular question I wanted to ask you guys. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to listen to the podcast [episode] that we taped last week and published this week. It was a pretty intense conversation. Laura was expressing some of her challenges, and Jay gave her a little bit of a push, encouraged her to take responsibility, that the problems were hers to fix. And then we learn more about what Laura was going through, and we all felt bad—Jay in particular—about that.

I guess the question I have for all three of you is this: Given what we’ve been through the last 18 months, this is probably not an unusual dynamic. And I wonder if you’ve given thought to the notion of: When do you give somebody a push—somebody who’s struggling—and when do you give them a hug? Anybody have any thoughts about that?

William Vanderbloemen:
I don’t think anyone’s allowed to hug anyone ever again in the workplace.

Loren Feldman:
Fair point.

Paul Downs:
[Laughter] Yeah.

Karen Clark Cole:
I think it comes down to listening first. You know, I listened to the podcast [episode] and sort of the nature of it. There’s a lot of jumping in with advice without really spending a lot of time listening and hearing the full story. And so I think if it was a different platform or format, then hopefully in real life, there’ll be more opportunity to just listen and find out what’s really going on.

Loren Feldman:
That’s a good point.

Paul Downs:
I guess my reaction is that it was a demonstration of the perils of advice. But what didn’t get talked about was the underlying message that is delivered to business owners at all times by the preponderance of the media, which is that, yeah, it’s sort of like what Jay said, “You’re the boss, suck it up.” And if you’re not succeeding, then you own it. And I think that that’s really harmful advice. The second thing is that—

Loren Feldman:
What do you mean, Paul? What are you thinking, when you say that’s harmful advice coming from the media?

Paul Downs:
Well, for many, many years, I sat in my office and read Inc. magazine and The New York Times and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, and wondered why my business didn’t succeed. I really put it on my own shoulders and did not make any attempt or find ways to get better advice. I think that just the suck-it-up advice is actually usually pretty bad because it’s based on an incomplete understanding of the facts. When I started writing for you, I had to start to describe what was going on in my world. And I realized it was almost impossible to deliver a full picture of what’s going on around any particular problem in any reasonable amount of time.

Getting back to Laura’s problem, she was talking about conflicts between members of her team, but we didn’t spend much time talking about those team members. And that’s critical information. We didn’t spend much time talking about her struggles, or we didn’t start by spending much time talking about her struggles with just general optimism and mental health, and that was critical information. And then there was bound to be a bunch of other stuff that was critical information that we didn’t even get to. And it comes down to: Nobody knows what’s really going on like you do. And you’re gonna bring to it whoever you are.

Karen Clark Cole:
And it’s complicated—right, Paul? I mean, what you’re getting to is that everything is complicated.

Paul Downs:
Everything is complicated.

Karen Clark Cole:
Running a business doesn’t mean you’re not complicated.

Paul Downs:
Right. But then also the, “Oh, here’s a kick in the ass.” That’s not often helpful. I think, “Here’s maybe how you’ve dealt with similar problems,” or, “Here’s how other people have done it,” is the next level of advice. But trying to actually guide someone to helping themselves. What do they need to do? That, to me, is the level that was missing in that conversation. It was an acknowledgement that the thing was complicated, and then it sort of stopped there. And yeah, Jay felt bad about it, because he had jumped in with the conventional wisdom to start with. And conventional wisdom is often incomplete or inapplicable to many people’s situation.

Loren Feldman:
Those are all good points. I will say that Dana and Laura have both thanked Jay in the past for jumping in and doing that. But obviously this situation was different. And obviously, you’re also right about the limits of the format. There’s only so much you can cover in a podcast episode. We do hope to come back to it again in the future.

Karen Clark Cole:
In that conversation, what kept coming up is, “It’s your fault, and you have to go deal with it.” And I just think about it so differently. I just think, “Well, no, there’s no one to blame.” It’s just, these things happen. And it’s a leader’s responsibility to listen and to look and to evaluate every situation, because every day is different. I haven’t had one day on the job that’s the same. And if I didn’t come to work saying, “Okay, what am I going to learn today?” How could I ever have learned along the way? And so it’s just a different way of thinking about it. I think that the thing that is true is, it’s hard. Running a company, owning a company, being a founder, whatever it is, it’s hard. I always like to say, “It’s not for the faint of heart.” You have to be tough, at the end of the day. And it’s not easy, no matter what it is.

Paul Downs:
We also need to acknowledge that you’re going to experience highs and lows, even if you don’t have that history that Laura had. I’m not wired that way. I’m a very optimistic person, and I run through troughs and peaks, and that’s the nature of reality. The external factors can make the basic advice of, “Suck it up and do what you need to do,” either harder or easier. Like, I don’t know how we would have gotten through, in my company, the last year if it hadn’t been for the government suddenly showering me with money. Well, that changed everything. And that had nothing to do with my attitude. And so there’s gonna be a level at which you can do what you can do. But there’s a level beyond that, too.

Karen Clark Cole:
I think what’s important as well is to separate that the conversation started last week with talking about the issues and the problems that Laura was feeling and having in her business. And then it ended in her personal life, which, they’re obviously very connected. And I think running a company is hard enough, and when Laura has these real struggles—and mental health is the real deal. All of us have to take care of it, to one degree or another. And there are folks, like Laura mentioned, where her chemistry is different, and she has to take great care. And it was so awesome for me to hear how she really understands it. She’s really taken care of it. And on top of all that, she’s running a complicated business, which has real challenges.

And so I think what she’s doing is, she should be writing books about it. She should be up there talking and showing others that you can have all kinds of things going on in your personal life, and you can still do it. Because I think there’s a lot of people who will be inspired, who may say, “I have a really hard time getting out of bed, so therefore I can’t do all these hard things.” And it’s not easy for her, but she’s doing it, and she’s really, really successful at it.

Loren Feldman:
All right, my thanks—especially for the free advice—to Karen Clark Cole, Paul Downs, and William Vanderbloemen. As always, thanks for sharing, guys. I really appreciate it.

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